During the summer of 1967, my friend Steve and I (both 16 years-old at the time), had jobs as bellhops at what was then the very prestigious Royal Embassy Hotel in downtown Montreal, which is now a Best Western. Although now-a-days I don’t think a hotel that had a mirrored dance floor on the 15th floor would be considered prestigious! The hotel was situated on the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke streets, one of the busiest intersections in the city at the time. And it was even busier that summer because the World’s Fair, or Expo 67 as it was called back then, was in full swing and the hotel was hopping with guests (even some famous ones) from all over the world.
The job was pretty straightforward. You waited for the bell captain to ring his rather annoying bell before yelling: “Next,” and whoever’s turn it was, would scurry over to the captain’s station to be given their next check-in, check-out, or if you were really unlucky, the dreaded “room change.” And yes, we had to wear uniforms much like the one pictured above, making us look like extras from a “B” movie! There were a couple of bell captains at this hotel working different shifts, but the one I remember, as he always seemed to be working the same shift as us, was a miserable little man with a Napoléon complex named Alain Mousard. He was less than five feet tall, had an annoying voice that his French accent only made marginally better, and a vicious temper. And he hated me! I can’t remember how many times he fired me that summer, only to call the next day, saying: “Où es-tu?” (Where are you?). My French was not very good back then, which is why he spoke French to us, just to make us squirm, before translating. When I would respond: “Well, you fired me yesterday!” He would reply: “Mais non, Marlin (This was his nickname for me because he thought I looked like Marlon Brando – I didn’t), c’était juste un malentendu Marlin, viens travailler totu de suite, j’ai besoin de toi!” (That was just a misunderstanding, Marlin. Come to work right away. I need you). And I would, until the next firing, because the tip money was just too good to pass up. We are talking about as much as $300 some weeks, which in 2023 dollars is equivalent to $2,665. Not exactly chump change to a couple of sixteen-year-olds!
As I mentioned at the outset, there was a steady stream of well-known people coming in and out of the hotel on a regular basis. Three of the better known celebrities that I remember staying at the hotel that summer were Marlene Dietrich, Vladziu Valentino Liberace (can you imagine how much luggage he had?), and Walter Lantz (the Disney animator responsible for Woody Woodpecker, among others). These stars, and other well-heeled guests visiting from the U.S, were coveted check-ins/check-outs for us bellhops, as they were tipping in U.S dollars and in 1967 every $1 was equivalent to $1.25 CDN.
Then there were the room changes, the bane of our existence as bellhops. These happened when someone either requested to be moved to another room, or there was some screw-up by the hotel. There were a couple of reasons for why we hated these assignments: Firstly, the guests were not usually around when these changes were happening, which meant no tips. Secondly, too often the guests had already unpacked, and you had to rifle through drawers, closets, and bathrooms to collect all their belongings…yuck! On one of my shifts, I was the unfortunate recipient of one of these room changes, but it did have a happy ending. Two opera singers (husband and wife) had requested separate rooms for their stay, as this was their preferred arrangement while touring. The hotel had screwed up and put them into one room, promising them to do their best to accommodate their request for separate rooms. When this was done, I was the one going up to the room they were now in to transport their belongings to two different rooms. However, when I knocked on their door, the husband answered, as they were both having dinner in their room. The bad news: They had both unpacked, and I probably don’t need to tell you how much clothing two opera performers who were on tour for a couple of months had! It took me well over two hours to make the change. The good news: When I brought them the keys to their new individual rooms, I got a $200 tip, American!
When Steve and I discovered that the hotel had this mirrored dance floor, we both looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders, suggesting that we really didn’t understand the significance of this. Hey, it was 1967 and we had led a sheltered life until then! When we finally realized what it meant…I think I’ll just leave it at that! Because of this mirrored floor, the hotel attracted a certain type of clientele, if you know what I mean, who were not necessarily staying at the hotel. On this front, Mr. Mousard would put on a different “hat,” so to speak, and became the de-facto pimp for certain guests requiring “special” services. Ah, the machinations of a big hotel! Many years later, when I read John Irving’s wonderful 1981 book, The Hotel New Hampshire, I could only nod my head in that knowing way!
When the summer was over, and Steve and I had to return for our final year of high school, the job came to an end, but not our dealings with the hotel. Steve and I were being paid a wage of $0.65 per hour, which at the time was $0.35 below the minimum wage at that time. Yes, you read that right, the minimum wage in Quebec in 1967 was $1.00 per hour! We didn’t complain about this while we were employed, because the tips more than made up for the shortfall, but as soon as we quit, Steve filed a complaint with the Minimum Wage Commission, and several months later we both received checks, which rewarded us the $0.35 for every hour that we worked that summer!
Many years later when I was in the workforce and travelling quite a bit, my colleagues would always ask me why I tipped more than usual in hotels for services rendered. I think you all know the answer to that one!
Los Angeles 2023